Ecological Civilisation: A Challenge to Liberal Environmentalism?

Adjunct Professor Berthold Kuhn looks at the specific features of the concept and analyses from the perspectives of national policy making and international cooperation. The West, and environmental liberals more broadly, would benefit from a better understanding of and engagement with China’s experience of environmental policy making.

Ecological civilisation in China by Berthold Kuhn - DOC
Professor Kuhn

He advocates paper increasing international engagement with China on environmental discourses and policy making. Some consider the concept, with historically charged references to Chinese philosophy, to be a challenge to liberal environmentalism.

However, China’s environmental policies are much more multi-faceted than orthodox Western views on policy making in China may suggest. Policy design and implementation involves a range of stakeholders and includes market-based mechanisms. 

Ecological civilisation was written into the Chinese constitution in 2018. It serves as a vision of sustainable development with Chinese characteristics and refers to Chinese philosophical and civilisational traditions. It seeks to complement the three core dimensions of the concept of sustainable development – the environmental, the economic, and the social dimensions – with specific features of Chinese political civilisation, aspects of Chinese governance, and core elements of the Chinese sustainable economic development agenda.

Professor Berthold Kuhn is a political scientist and international cooperation advisor to the Dialogue of Civilisations foundation.. He is an adjunct professor (Privatdozent) at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin. He has previously been a professor at the School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University, and at the School of Public Affairs and School of Public Policy, Xiamen University. Professor Kuhn has made substantial contributions to the promotion of international cooperation and strategic partnerships between leading German and Chinese Universities.

Defining ecological civilisation: Philosophical and cultural foundations

The concept of ecological civilisation (shentai wenming) considers nature to be part of life, rather than something that can be exploited without restraint. It serves as a reference framework for the Chinese political leadership to develop visions of modern ecological socialism (Kuhn, 2016). The linguistic choice of ‘civilisation’ taps into the party language of “spiritual civilization” (Hansen and Liu, 2018).

The concept highlights specific aspects of Chinese philosophical and civilisational traditions. Hansen et al. (2018), with reference to Jasanoff (2015), argue that it is best understood as a “sociotechnical imaginary” in which cultural and moral virtues constitute key components.

Leading proponents of the concept refer to Confucian texts as well as Daoist and Buddhist elements. Pan Yue (2003, 2007, 2008), in particular, aimed to extract elements of a common eco-centric wisdom from different sources of Chinese philosophy. For example, he stressed that Daoism emphasises the importance of the law and the conditions of nature that should guide human activities. Such analysis is supported by efforts of other scholars. In the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, Miller (2006) examined the ways in which the religious and philosophical thinking of Daoism intersects more fruitfully than monotheistic religion or liberal secular humanism with the sciences of evolution, ecology, and environment.

The concept of ecological civilisation or eco-civilisation seeks to complement the three core dimensions of the concept of sustainable development – the environmental, the economic and the social dimension – with specific features of Chinese political civilisation, aspects of Chinese governance, and core elements of the Chinese sustainable economic development agenda.

Efforts made to compare and contrast Chinese and Western philosophical traditions with regard to the relationship between human beings and nature might bear the risk of generalising discourses and instrumentalising philosophical analysis for cultural assertion and nationalism. Hansen et al. (2018, p. 198), with reference to Wang Lihua (2013; 2014), caution against drawing too far-reaching conclusions about eco-wisdom from Chinese philosophical sources or overstressing such sources’ impact for policymaking. They conclude that analysis drawn from ancient texts by Pan Yu and others is driven by selective, reductionist, and contested interpretation of ancient philosophical traditions. Such analysis can also ignore practices of massive environmental destruction in the context of China’s industrial development.

Ecological civilisation as a political resource

Ecological Civilisation has been adopted by the highest levels of political leadership and has gradually gained traction across the country. Today it is regarded as the major ideological reference framework for Chinese environmental and climate policies and actions at different levels of government.

The concept of ecological civilisation certainly contrasts with discourses and practices attributed to China’s industrial development under Mao Zedong, which apparently disregarded concepts of harmony between humans and nature. Betke (2003) stresses that the impetus to develop the policy field of environmental protection from the 1970s onwards stemmed more from the People’s Republic of China’s return to world politics and its participation in the first global environmental summit in Stockholm in 1972 than from a spread of awareness of ecological problems in the country (Betke, 2003, p. 774).

In the years of China’s impressive double-digit economic growth, environmental concerns were subordinated to economic growth strategies based on industrial development. China supplied the world with goods and developed a reputation as a notorious polluter of natural resources in the context of rising global awareness and policy actions in the field of environmental and climate policies. Since about ten years ago, China has accounted for close to one-third of worldwide CO2 emissions and will continue to do so in the years to come.

According to Hansen et al., with reference to the theoretical works of Jasanoff (2015), the concept of ecological civilisation has been developed in view of designing and promoting a new “collectively held, institutionally stabilised, and publically performed vision of a desirable futures…” (Jasanoff, 2015), realising the dream of ‘beautiful China’, a term which was also written into the constitution in the context of the latest amendment in March 2018.

From a top-down governance perspective, the reference to civilisational and institutional aspects provides the political leadership with opportunities to emphasise the guiding role of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) in shaping China’s development vision and its economic policy focus on innovation and technological development as key elements of economic and social transformation.

From a bottom-up perspective, the concept provides room to collaborate, to raise awareness, and to some extent, to address dissatisfaction with the state of the environment in China and thus engage with a series of stakeholders and the public on the future of China’s development. However, this does not mean that the claims of local protesters will all be accommodated. Much depends on the way they are forwarded and framed. “Grassroots echoes of ecological civilization in rural China” (Hansen and Liu, 2018) display a significant variety of government responses.

From the perspective of international cooperation, the promotion of ecological civilisation could be seen as an effort to blend three of China’s most important claims, which are part of its strategy to re-position China – ‘the Middle Kingdom’ – at the centre of world politics:

  • to become a leading, modern, green economy driven by sustainable development policies, notably smart technologies, clean energy, and investments in education and social welfare. According to Hu Min of Energy Foundation China, “China no longer sees low-carbon growth as a threat to its economic development. Rather, it’s seen as bringing new business opportunities” (Li Jing/SCMP, 2015).
  • to be respected as a big player in international cooperation that makes significant contributions to achieve and promote major global agreements, in particular the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015), which both come along with a series of high-level follow-up meetings and comprehensive reporting duties with good media coverage across the world.
  • to be regarded as an ancient civilisational state that respects and promotes traditional values based on its philosophical traditions, notably including Confucianism but also referring to important elements of Buddhism and Daoism

Given today’s significance of the concept in China’ environmental policy discourses, a closer look at the origins and evolution of the concept is worthwhile.

Evolution of the concept of ecological civilisation

Internal drivers in the era of double-digit growth

The first wave of modern intellectual discourse on ecological civilisation dates back to the years from 2003 to 2008, when Pan Yue was deputy director of the former China’s State Environmental Protection Agency[1], shared some of his analysis of traditional ecological wisdom in Chinese philosophy with a larger public in party meetings, newspaper articles, and interviews. His thoughts corresponded well with the ideas of a new generation of potential political leaders. President Xi Jinping, when he served as a Party Secretary in Zhejiang Province in 2005, had used a metaphor that praised the richness of China’s natural resources, which would need to be protected for all times: “clear waters and lush mountains are gold and silver” (lüshui qingshan jiushi jinshan). The concept of ecological civilisation gained strong traction after President Xi Jinping took over as president and party chief in 2013 and pushed for energy transformation and stricter enforcement of environmental policies and legislation.

Ecological civilisation, however, had been already introduced into the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology from 2007 onwards. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 4,000 published Chinese articles and books included ecological civilisation as one of their keywords, and more than 170,000 articles in mainstream press-media in China invoked the concept (Heurtebise, 2017, p. 7; Hansen et al., 2018, p. 195). The growing number of discussions and publications around the concept could be seen as an effort to sinocize environmentalism in China and to present a specific Chinese approach and development concept to an international audience.

The policy of ecological civilisation was incorporated into the Communist Party of China’s Charter at the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012. This was at a time when Xi Jinping had taken over the presidency from Hu Jintao. In 2015, the CPC released a nine-section milestone policy document on ecological civilisation titled ‘Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Further Promoting the Development of Ecological Civilisation’. The document proposes strategies, standards, and mechanisms to improve policy implementation. It reflects a change in policy priorities from economic growth to sustainable development. It emphasises the significance of environmental policies, adequate governance mechanims and introduces a framework for the introduction of environmental protection criteria for the performance assessment of government and party officers. The policy document set the basis for the creation of new policy frameworks for green and low-carbon development.

China is focusing on the reduction of emissions through energy efficiency gains and expanding the use of renewables, the promotion of a circular economy, afforestation, wetland conservation and restoration, and many other activities serving the goal of enhanced environmental and climate protection.

China fully embraced the concept of sustainable development but also further developed its concept of ecological civilisation, emphasising Chinese approaches to dealing with the challenges. What was surprising to some international policy analysts was that the Xi Jinping administration moved quickly in its efforts to translate the lofty concept of ecological civilisation into practices. This resulted in a series of new policies, laws, regulations, pilot projects, incentives, conferences, and training programmes, as well as punishments for polluting companies and individual party cadres disrespecting the new policy guidelines. The strategy also entailed administrative reforms, resulting, for example, in renaming and upgrading the role of the Ministry of Environment, now named the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, along with newly defined competencies in March 2018, e.g., in emissions trading. The administration also stepped up efforts to involve more stakeholders at different levels, including academics, consulting firms, and non-profit organisations.[2]

External drivers in the era of the SDGs

These developments took place in the context of a growing pollution crisis that tarnished the image of China and its development model inside China and worldwide. Pictures of people wearing masks in the capital Beijing made headlines around the world from around 2010 onwards and the US Embassy in Beijing started tweeting data from an air-quality monitors. Some attribute the profound changes in China’s environmental policy to actions such as those by the US Embassy and international media-reporting; others place more emphasis on national debates over the obvious deterioration of living conditions in urban agglomerations in China. In the winter of 2012-2013, pollution levels reached an alarming record high and China began to tackle air pollution in a serious way, especially after Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on air pollution” in 2014. In China, air pollution is a proxy for the many environmental challenges that China faces in the context of rapid industrialisation. The ‘Under the Dome’ video in 2015, a self-financed Chinese documentary by Chai Jing – a former China Central Television journalist – concerning air pollution in China triggered debates on urban health issues across the country. Recently, India has overtaken China with regard to pollution levels in major cities but the pollution issue is far from solved in China and continues to be a challenge for political authorities and a push-factor for ambitious environmental policies and programmes.

At the international level, China came under increasingly diplomatic pressure to reconsider its positioning as a developing country that could still escape binding commitments to reduce emissions. China began to reconsider its orthodox interpretation of the principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ and engaged in international cooperation on environmental and climate protection in a more constructive way. China played an important role in facilitating the agreement on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015. Bin Bin Wang, researcher at Tsinghua University, produced a book with the tile From Zero to Hero, tracing the history of China’s engagement in climate policies, from the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009 on to the features of China’s 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) – approved in March 2016 – that gives prominent attention to Green Development.

Ecological civilisation and international cooperation

Policies and progress

China has quickly translated the objectives of global agreements on sustainable development and climate change mitigation into national programmes and integrated a series of substantial commitments on carbon intensity targets, peak CO2 emissions, and the extension of its forest stock into national and sub-national planning documents. In some areas, national targets surpass international commitments.

China is on track to meet or overachieve its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). However, the Climate Action Tracker (2019) reported that “increased fossil-fuel consumption drove an estimated 2.3% increase in Chinese CO2 emissions in 2018, a second year of growth after emissions had appeared to level out between 2014 and 2016”. The elevation of ecological civilisation to the status of a concept referred to in the constitution is a way of guaranteeing that the Chinese leadership will continue to strongly commit to environmental and climate protection in the coming years.

China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and its actions both at home and abroad have an enormous impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. The concept of ecological civilisation gained strong traction after President Xi Jinping took over as president and party chief in 2013 and pushed for energy transformation and stricter enforcement of environmental policies and legislation. China has produced a comprehensive report on its implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2017 outlining progress made on achievement on all 17 goals. China embraces the concept of sustainable development and plays an active part in agenda setting at the level of the United Nations. However, in national discourse, reference paid to sustainable development has gradually given way to promotion of the concept of ecological civilisation.[3]

The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s global footprint

Given its weight in the global economy, China is nowadays under much more scrutiny not to contradict its commitments made at global summits and its national green policies through its infrastructure investments in other countries, especially in developing countries in Central Asia. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s flagship initiative to promote economic development and inter-regional connectivity among more than 115 countries. This large infrastructure initiative, together with mergers and acquisitions in many other countries, was initially seen as strategic engagement for China to compensate for slower growth rates at home and – to some extent – keep ailing polluting industries alive. The BRI is about investment in transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure; industrial capacity; and technical capacity-building.

The BRI has not only attracted global attention in terms of its foreign and security policy dimension but also in terms of its potential large-scale impact on the global environment. Of all coal plants under development outside of China, one quarter, or 102 GW of capacity, have committed or proposed funding from Chinese financial institutions and companies (Climate Action Tracker, 2019). Experts from the Climate Action Tracker conclude that China’s actions abroad will have an important impact on future global greenhouse gas emissions, and China is financing and building both fossil-fuel and renewable infrastructure worldwide.

Liberal environmentalism and the challenge of constructive engagement

How do the characteristics of the Chinese approach to environmental and climate protection compare with approaches of other countries and the predominant mechanisms of global governance? Bernstein (2006) argues that global environmental governance rests on a set of norms which would be best characterised by the label “liberal environmentalism”, predicating environmental protection on the promotion and maintenance of a liberal economic order. Wang (2019) points to this question, writing “what remains to be seen is whether Ecological Civilization is leading China toward an exit from liberal environmentalism and heralding a new era of so-called ‘authoritarian environmentalism’”.

For some, China’s policies and discourses constitute a challenge to liberal environmentalism. A liberal approach to environmental and climate policies would be characterised by a plurality of discourses, an emphasis on market-based mechanisms, e.g., emissions-trading and sustainable finance; and a series of incentives and programmes implemented by government and non-government actors at different levels, rather than extensive law-making and regulations coupled with centralised control.

While rule and enforcements from central authority have been strengthened in recent years, incentives and specific programmes, such as low-carbon and eco-city city pilots, still play an important role in China. Those pointing predominantly to authoritarian environmental rule in China tend to overlook the complexity of challenges related to the sustainability transition currently underway in China. The Chinese party state appears very strong and omnipresent. Ideologically charged discourses are meant to further reinforce its legitimacy. However, in reality, the party state not only relies strongly on cooperation from a variety of stakeholders, including scientists, experts, and the business community, but also on private investments, technological innovations, and creative designs for liveable environments. It needs stakeholders outside the realm of the party state to promote its vision.

China is adopting a mix of command-and-control and market-based mechanisms, including sustainable finance initiatives, to address the enormous challenges related to ecologically sound development. The concept of ecological civilisation provides room for many initiatives and collaborative efforts from different sections of society.


In sum, the concept of ecological civilisation connects future visions of ecological, social and economic development to Chinese traditions. Due to its backing by the highest level of political leadership, it has gained significant traction over recent years.

From an environmental policy agenda point of view, China’s 2018 constitutional amendment allowing for an extension of the president’s mandate somewhat guarantees a continued high-level commitment. At the same time, however, the authoritarian turn of the regime may not make the China model more attractive, at least in the West. In terms of domestic environmental governance, China’s challenge is to keep the spirit of collaborative governance and growing citizens’ awareness of environmental issues alive and involve the private sector, non-profits, the research community, and the wider public in modern policy design and implementation of good practices.

This briefing paper on the Chinese concept and policy experience of ‘ecological civilisation’ underscores the need for increased international engagement with China on environmental issues. the concept of ecological civilisation constitutes a serious commitment to emphasise ecological aspects across different policy sectors in China, although its significance as a guiding principle for infrastructure investments made in the context of the BRI might still be less pronounced.

Source: Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute. 26 Aug 2019


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[1] The agency was upgraded to the status of “Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP)” in 2008. The Ministry was renamed “Ministry of Ecology and Environment” in 2018 acquiring additional competencies, e.g. in administrating China’s emission trading schemes.

[2] Ma Jun, the head of the non-profit organisation, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), is a leading example of the impact of Chinese nonprofits on pollution monitoring and control in China. China nowadays witnesses the formation of policy communities in the renewable energy sector, as well as a growing networks of environmental NGOs.

[3] See Kuhn (2016) for a discussion of national Chinese discourses related to the concept of sustainable development.

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